One of the best movies of the past decade, period. “Step Brothers” is a delirious, borderline surreal comedy about two middle-aged men (Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly) who, after their parents get married, are forced to live together. It very loosely resembles a film as we traditionally understand it, and was probably even more out of control without Judd Apatow’s guiding hand (director Adam McKay cites Apatow for getting the movie into working order after deeming it “broken”). What is especially strange about “Step Brothers” is how it seems to be actively commenting on the Apatow school of comedy — since Apatow films usually concern a man-child, Apatow, Ferrell, and Reilly decided to make them <em>literal man-children,</em> having them behave and talk like petulant ten-year-old boys. It’s another stroke of subversive genius that makes “Step Brothers” a towering achievement in modern comedy, and leagues beyond anything Apatow has actually, you know, directed.
‘The Ben Stiller Show’
Talk about surreal! Ben Stiller’s sketch comedy show, which ran for one year in the early ‘90s, was a crazy weekly treat. Apatow was one of the guiding hands behind the show as both a producer and writer, shaping it around Stiller’s distinct comedy style and crafting bits that, while sometimes appear hopelessly dated, still totally kill today (it still occasionally airs on IFC). Later in life, Apatow would receive a reputation for protecting the vision of comedians, and this seems to be an early indication of that. I might be a simpleton but the “Die Hard 12: Die Hungry” sketch still cracks me up.
A decade after the hugely influential “Ben Stiller Show,” Apatow would usher in someone who, in our estimation, is arguably the next great voice in American comedy — Lena Dunham. Apatow was one of the high-profile cheerleaders who rallied around Dunham’s micro-budgeted feature “Tiny Furniture” and helped her secure the HBO series, which he executive produces and occasionally co-writes. A sort of down-and-dirty version of “Sex and the City,” we first saw “Girls” when they premiered a three-episode block of it at this past spring’s South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin, Texas. By the end of the third episode, we were over the moon, and deeply excited about what Apatow and company were cooking up.
‘Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story’
One of the more overlooked entries in the recent Apatow movement, “Walk Hard” was an ingenious send-up of music world biographies (things like “Ray” and, obviously, “Walk the Line”) that often, like the best Apatow productions, flirts with the surreal. Apatow favorite John C. Reilly plays Dewey Cox — whose appearance doesn’t much change even though the movie spans decades — a rock musician who reaches stratospheric levels of success while remaining an idiot. The supporting cast is vast and the cameo appearances add even more dazzle (nothing beats Jack White as Elvis. Nothing!). Our favorite moment is when Dewey is in the midst of his Brian Wilson-style freak out phase. This is the reason why music geeks covet “Walk Hard” when the general populace turned its back on the movie.
Along with “Girls,” you could tell that Apatow was trying to do some course correction, given his dodgy representation of women in his movies. “Bridesmaids” was birthed after Kristin Wiig’s performance in the Apatow-directed “Knocked Up.” He signed her for her own movie, and this is what she cooked up. One of the funniest films of last year, with one of the strongest ensembles in any movie, it is a frank and honest look at the dynamics of female friendship and how those shift in the high-intensity world of weddings. It’s easy to see why, after “Bridesmaids,” Wiig quickly split from her regular gig on “Saturday Night Live;” this movie announced her as a bona-fide star.
Like Apatow plucking Dunham and Wiig to helm their own endeavors, he was smart enough to see the broad comic appeal of director David Gordon Green, who up until this point had been known for his somber independent dramas (things like “All the Real Girls” and “George Washington”). “Pineapple Express” was far, far away from what he had previously accomplished, but that’s what made Apatow’s choice so brilliant. There are tons of flourishes in “Pineapple Express” that only Green would have pushed for — the kaleidoscopic title sequence (set to Eddy Grant’s “Electric Avenue”), the bursts of ultra-violence, those great lap dissolves and pretty much all of the stuff with stars James Franco and Seth Rogen. It’s a genre-bending triumph.
‘Get Him to the Greek’
This has become a favorite of mine for some reason, probably because it ran about 800 times a day for a couple of months on pay cable and I had no choice but to give in to its innumerable charms. A spin-off of sorts from the infinitely less interesting “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” “Get Him to the Greek” mines the same rich comedy waters as “Walk Hard,” focusing again on a barely functional rock star. This time the rocker is Aldous Snow, played memorably by Russell Brand, who is being wrangled by a young record label stooge (Jonah Hill). “Get Him to the Greek” isn’t a great film, per say, but it’s one that has its own vibe altogether, and is full of moments I could watch repeatedly until my eyes start to bleed (pretty much anything with P. Diddy). Brand, being chased down an endless hotel hallway by Diddy, proclaims “It’s Kubrickian!” Maybe “Get Him to the Greek” is too.
‘The Cable Guy’
Infamously, “The Cable Guy” was the movie that first paid an actor $ 20 million (in this case Jim Carrey). It was, just as infamously, a movie that went through many, many drafts as the tone of the piece changed to suit its megawatt new star. Initially more of a pitch-black comedy, it concerns Carrey’s Cable Guy, who forms an obsessive friendship with Matthew Broderick. Originally the character did stuff like killed people, but that was toned down and refined. And while there are still some sharp-edged things in there, it feels somewhat compromised. It might be a more fascinating film because of it, though, and the leads are truly incredible (Apatow’s wife and frequent collaborator, Leslie Mann, is in it too). In a way it feels like a natural, feature-length extension of what director Ben Stiller and Apatow were attempting with “The Ben Stiller Show.” Cult classic immortality awaits it, we’re sure.
‘You Don’t Mess with the Zohan’
Way more funny and deranged than Apatow’s own Adam Sandler vehicle “Funny People,” “You Don’t Mess with the Zohan” is a bizarre action-comedy-something co-written by Apatow, Sandler, Carlito Cabardo and oddball comedy legend Robert Smigel. It has something to do with a Jewish spy living in America as a hairdresser (one of the better gags is that his “look book” is from the early eighties). It’s not exactly “Munich,” but there’s a headier look at the Israel/Palestine relationships than you would expect from a movie where an oversexed Sandler gets down with old women in the back of the salon. Also, did we mention how weird it is? It’s enough to make you wish that Apatow would ditch the pinned-down realism of his own efforts as a writer/director and try something a little bit kookier, because he’s really, really good at it.
‘Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy’ and ‘Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby’
The crown jewels in the Apatow production crown are the movies made by filmmaker Adam McKay (“Step Brothers”). These two were his first two movies, both produced by Apatow. They are, as we all know, absolute classics. Will Ferrell plays the title role in both films — Ron Burgundy is a baffoonish news anchor in the ’70s; Ricky Bobby is a conceited NASCAR driver in modern times. Hilarity ensues. These movies are more structurally sound and rich with character than Apatow’s own film. They also take chances (with settings like NASCAR and the ’70s news game), and make you giggle. There will be another “Anchorman” movie very soon, which makes us uncomfortably excited, while “Talladega Nights” will probably be a one and done. However, is the ballad of Ricky Bobby ever truly finished?